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I am amused as I drive around nowadays and see "Airport" icons on blue informational signs and I have cause to think: "Well, no WiFi or Bluetooth there!" That is probably what children are thinking. They probably wonder why an airport cannot afford WiFi.

Is this good UX, to re-use an already well-established informational sign icon for something with an entirely different meaning?

Update: It was pointed out that there are many radio-emitting aspects of a phone beyond Wifi and Bluetooth and so I suggest that there be a single icon that covers all of the radio emitting aspects, like a little antenna with lightning bolts coming out of it. (I think this already exists...) Could they simply draw the red-circle-with-slash icon over such a Radio Emissions icon? Would that be obvious to everyone?

Further update: Apparently WiFi is allowed on some flights now, so that raises the question of why I see an airplane when I turn off WiFi on my laptop. But... the original question - why was the existing sign icon commandeered for something unrelated (airport nearby vs don't interfere with the plane) - is still very much on the table. I wish people would actually address that question, not the history of "why / how it came to be thus, mumble mumble." Please.

This Is Your Airport Sign (two lanes don't have Wifi? What?) I cant read it because it is in chinese or something

... And This Is Your Airport Sign On Windows 10 (note that I have network access): Where do you want to go today? The airport, maybe? Yes, We Have No WiFi

Any Questions?

It looks like this is the only wireless setting on my laptop:

Windows Settings screen

They think that a Wired Connection is No Connection At All: Even though I am doing this in real time

"Your part will be to remain calm."

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Benny Skogberg Aug 27 '16 at 4:30
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    The upshot seems to be that Windows 10 did greatly err in its use of the icon. But I still think that it should not have been used on the computer ever after it had already been used on a road sign. Like a Domain Name, the first one to use it "wins", and that is the end of it. The irony is that starting today, I no longer use a wired connection, but use WiFi just like "normal" people. We now return you to your regularly scheduled pogrom. – user67695 Aug 28 '16 at 16:11
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Context is everything.

Yes, you are right in questioning that some people might be confused by this.

However, the usages of this icon each show in dramatically different contexts. The icon is used as "this is an airport" where it involves a location or direction: a map, a road sign, a list of locations in an app... On the other hand, the icon is used as "disable radio emissions" in a system settings or quick access menu on a device with radio emissions.

I have yet to see a map, road sign or locations list that uses an airplane to indicate "disable radio emissions", and I've yet to see a settings app that uses an airplane icon to indicate "this is an airport".

The problem with using a modified version of the existing wifi and bluetooth icons is twofold:

  1. You're not just disabling wifi and bluetooth. You're also disabling other signals, like GPS tracking, your cellphone radio transmitter, location tracking, NFC,... Using an icon that only shows wifi and bluetooth would be confusing for some people.
  2. An icon that indicates DISABLING something (as indicated by a stop sign) is also confusing compared to an icon indicating a MODE or state toggle. If you have a button that serves to disable something, it's counterintuitive to press that button a second time if you wish to enable something again. It's also less obvious whether it's on or off. If I ask you to "turn disabled radio emissions on", you may go "what?" and do the wrong thing, like only disable wifi or bluetooth.

On the other hand, a button that toggles a state is clear: when it's in the "on" state, the state is on. If you press it again, it goes into the off state and it's off again. If I ask you to "turn airplane mode on", you can see "oh, that's the button with the airplane icon".


Update: I googled around a bit after a comment from the OP, and apparently, there is a legitimate icon from the Consumer Electronics Association that looks exactly like what he suggests. I found it on http://applespot.ee/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=7604&p=58677 using Google Translate:

enter image description here

  • Thank you. Your second point goes to the heart of my question: an icon cannot mean both a thing (noun) and an action (verb - enable / disable, etc). But the little slide button thing that changes color goes a very long way towards clearing up the confusion (green / right is on, grey / left is off). So, rather than clicking an icon to toggle something, how about a toggle? Lightswitches toggle up and down, because a button that pushes in to mean both on and off was pretty unintuitive. What we need is an icon that means "radio emissions". Perhaps a little antenna with lightning bolts coming out? – user67695 Aug 24 '16 at 14:52
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    "an icon cannot mean both a thing and an action" Why not? English and other languages are wrought with words that do. How is an icon different? – Octopus Aug 24 '16 at 18:41
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    It's off-topic but GPS tracking is not disabled on some devices (among possibly others, devices running iOS 8.3 or later) when airplane mode is on. Although I presume unassisted tracking would be slow and it wouldn't work well on a metallic airplane. – Constantino Tsarouhas Aug 24 '16 at 18:50
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    You should add, that on most modern Airlines Wifi is allowed and even encouraged, so the passengers can use on board Wifi-services. So most modern devices allow you to turn on wifi while still being in airplane mode. Maybe airplane-mode will even change in the next releases to only disable cellular-services and not wifi ? – Falco Aug 25 '16 at 9:14
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    @nocomprende the problem is that the airplane icon has come to be well defined and known by everyone who uses a portable device. Changing that icon now might solve the confusion for people who can't tell the contexts apart well, but will confuse everyone who is used to the old icon, which is essentially everyone with a phone with an airplane mode. – Nzall Aug 25 '16 at 9:52
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Airplanes typically request that all cell phone and other devices that use wireless signal be turned off so there is no risk that they interfere with the airplane's instruments.***

Cell phone manufacturers recognized that there needed to be a way to put it in a mode that was safe to use on an airplane. But what would they call such a mode? Airplane mode.

Speculation: Perhaps when the feature was first released, the airplane icon was chosen so that it was a very obvious solution to the problem of flying but wanting to use your cell phone's other features--it screams, "are you on an airplane? USE THIS MODE!"

***As several users have stated, this is a popular misconception, however, the reason why passengers are asked to disable network capabilities of their phone is both irrelevant and out of scope of both this question and UX.SE.

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    For about 20 years, gasoline pumps have had a warning sign saying not to use cell phones or other radio-emitting devices near them. Thinking that the need to turn off radio features is limited to airplanes is extraordinarily short-sighted. Are computer designers really that oblivious? Turning off ringers is not called "movie mode" or "church mode" or "library mode". It is called what it actually is: "Silent". Seems like a good rule to follow when naming things. The real problem is that people have no idea that WiFi and Bluetooth involve radio waves, so there is no simple concept for that. – user67695 Aug 24 '16 at 14:00
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    @nocomprende have you ever turned off your cell phone before pulling up to a gas pump? Personally, I have not, despite having read that warning as well. I'd say that the need for that feature was far greater (from a user's perspective) in an airplane because flight attendants actually enforce this policy. – maxathousand Aug 24 '16 at 14:05
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    The gas pump myth was widely debunked before the prevalence of smartphones. However, the emissions from smartphones increased (gsm + wifi + bluetooth). On top of that, while you are 'requested' to turn your phone off in cinemas, churches, and libraries, airplanes are the only instance (to my knowledge) where this is actively enforced to the point where you may face legal penalties for non-compliance - thus the airplane icon becomes shorthand for "quick, I need to kill all the radio functions on my phone!". – Andrew Martin Aug 24 '16 at 15:35
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    @nocomprende In nearly every other case, merely silencing your phone is sufficient. In an airplane you are actually required to actually disable the transmitter on the phone. This requirement is mostly unique to airplanes, at least it's the only time the vast majority of people will need or use it. For the reason, the feature is called "Airplane mode" (not just on smartphones, but on nearly all cell phones dating back many years prior to smartphones.) Since the feature is called 'Airplane mode' and is used while on an airplane, the icon is an airplane. – reirab Aug 24 '16 at 18:56
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    @AndrewMartin The prevalent reason you have to turn off your cellular in an airplane is to safeguard base-stations on the ground against overload. skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/1123/21648 – Falco Aug 25 '16 at 9:22
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Airplane mode is much more nuanced than just "shut off the transmitter".

The latest guidelines about that mode allow Wi-Fi to stay enabled even if all telephone functions are supposed to remain off. Further, bluetooth has always been able to remain on. So it's not just a Shut off All Emissions mode. It truly is a configuration solely for communication devices on airplanes.

Given that it has no other use and that an antennae with a line through it doesn't convey the same function - ie: it doesn't shut off all transmitters in the device - then an airplane icon is the obvious choice.

That said, there are quite a few cases in which words have radically different meanings depending on context. A simple word one is Content. One meaning boils down to being happy, the other has to do with what may be inside of something, a third more recent definition has to do with something that may be consumed. A simple phrase such as "We're not content until your content" can have a very different meaning based on that context.

The way we know the difference is through context. Icons, as a way to present ideas in pictographic form, are no different.

  • Wow. Didn't know that the rules were changing. On my Win 8 upgraded to Win 10 laptop, the former icon for network connection (I use a wired connection) was replaced by a permanent Airplane which tells me nothing (I never use WiFi to connect to the internet). So, in my case, on a laptop, airplane must be meaning that WiFi is disabled. Right? Big complex issue trying to fit in to a tine pictogram. Hmm. – user67695 Aug 25 '16 at 18:12
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    @nocomprende your beef is with Windows 10, then, and the fact that the UI design is lacking in context. – DA01 Aug 25 '16 at 19:14
  • @nocomprende: Microsoft uses that icon to shut off all transmitters, even ones that are allowed by the FAA. The purpose is the same - comply with regulations governing air travel they just take it a little further and err on the side of caution. – NotMe Aug 25 '16 at 20:47
  • Someone should notify the Department of Transportation to stop using that icon on their road signs. (But they used it first!) (Shhh. You'll ruin the story!) – user67695 Aug 25 '16 at 20:52
  • So its a mode for using in aircraft. I think my old Nokia had a 'silent' mode for using in meetings, so the concept of a set of settings for a situation is familiar. – PhillipW Mar 29 '17 at 20:16
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You can use it, but it should make sense in your context of use

It's Ok to use the airplane icon for purposes other than "airplane mode" on mobile devices. However, in your context of use the airplane icon should make sense to the users. You should definitely test and verify that. If it's intuitive and users are not confused by it, you can use it.

Don't change the icon for airplane mode

Just to note, it is not good to change the "airplane mode" icon with other one because this violates the usability heuristic of consistency. Definitely don't do this.

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    Well, we haven't changed the "save" icon either. I am creating a simple database application, and the default icon to commit changes or new rows is ye olde 3.5 inch disk. I was dumbfounded, because to me, this would mean to make a file that holds the data. I pushed it, nothing happened, so I assumed that they had simply re-used the "make a file" icon in an entirely wrong context. This is not a nice way to treat your users, even if you are a multinational corporation that owns 90% of the market. But... what should a "commit changes" icon look like? Hmmm. English is so useful, but not universal. – user67695 Aug 24 '16 at 17:55
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    Most people probably don't even know it's a 3.5" disk, but just know that it "saves" because they've seen it used in many places. The consistency of a known symbol can be more important than the actual symbol specifics. – simpleuser Aug 25 '16 at 3:33
  • @user9999999: I suspect an even more important reason is that most people wouldn't recognize a hard disk depicted in an icon, even if they know what a real hard disk looks like. The floppy disk icon is not recognizeable because a floppy disk is a little square, but because the floppy disk is a little square with a characteristic white text field and a characteristic grey asymmetrical lid with an opening. What's a hard disk? A little ... box ... with some tech-looking greebles ... that differ by model and are too complex for the size of an icon. – O. R. Mapper Aug 25 '16 at 9:37
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    @nocomprende I suspect that most non-technical users have no concept of "commit" being any different to "save". Both mean "cause what I have done on the screen to be stored permanently". – nigel222 Aug 25 '16 at 13:31
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    @nigel222 but Save in Excel produces a file and Save in Access produces a... invisible change to a database somewhere. I think users realize this. If not, there would be a lot of people trying to stick a floppy in to Chrome when they do online banking. One sign does not fit all. – user67695 Aug 25 '16 at 18:09
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I like simple answers:

Why was the “Airport” icon chosen to mean: “radio emissions on your device are disabled”?

It wasn't. The airplane icon was chosen to mean "airplane mode".

As most of the answers point out, it's all about context. In the context of an airport, and one needing to use airplane mode, the airplane makes perfect sense.

One does not typically (ever?) need to go into airplane mode outside of an airport.

If you are upset that your laptop uses that icon to indicate wi-fi is turned off, then I'd say that's a failing of that UI design to understand context.

UPDATE: Revisiting this answer, I see I maybe didn't answer the specific question about Windows 10. This may be a compromise by the competing interests at MS. The issue is that Windows 10 is device agnostic. It was designed to be run on entirely portable hardware as well as good 'ol desktop hardware. Maybe the argument was that if you are on a desktop, you won't ever need this feature, so the icon confusion wouldn't be there for most folks.

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    You seem to be the only person who is implying that someone used the icon mistakenly. Upvote for You! – user67695 Aug 25 '16 at 20:54
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This is not an "airport icon"; it is a pictogram clearly depicting an airplane and not an airport. The connection between that and airports is contextual. If you see it on a highway sign, then it denotes that "this is the path to the place with airplanes, i.e. airport".

Why the airplane icon is used to denote the radio silent mode is that this mode is called "airplane mode".

Airplane mode, thus airplane icon.

"Airplane mode" in turn, derives its name from one the most common situations in which a personal device is obliged to enter into complete radio silence.

For instance, large numbers of people rarely have the opportunity to go near open pit mines or quarries at all, let alone during blasting, at which time radio silence may be required.

Therefore, even though "blasting mode" might perhaps have been among the nominees for what to call this device state, it lost out to "airplane mode".

  • Perhaps the Neutral position on the (automatic) gearshift of the car should be "Carwash Mode". Most people do not use Neutral in many other situations. I think that the developers who chose the icon figured that most people know nothing about radio emissions, so they fudged. But it would be better for people to learn about radio emissions instead, if they use a device that emits radio waves. – user67695 Mar 29 '17 at 18:54

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